What are similarities and differences between the refugee crises of the 1930s and today?
How might examining the history of refugees in the 1930s inform the choices that individuals and governments make in responding to refugees today?
Today’s lesson brings together two episodes: the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s and the existence today of more than 65 million displaced people worldwide — the highest number on record since the United Nations Refugee Agency began collecting statistics.
Troubles for European Jews began with the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933.
The year 1938 was a moment of crisis:
The German annexation of Austria (in March) and the Czech Sudetenland (in September) increased the number of people affected by Nazi restrictions, while at the same time those restrictions intensified to the point that Jews, political dissidents and others were effectively removed from German public life and denied rights, employment and education.
In November 1938, Kristallnacht (“the night of broken glass”) pogrom targeted Jewish communities throughout the Nazi Reich.
Shortly after Kristallnacht, a poll in the United States found that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent still objected to admitting large numbers of Jews.
Multiple humanitarian crises have arisen around the world, with the greatest concentration centered on the Middle East, particularly the parts of Syria and Iraq impacted by civil war and warfare with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Europe faces a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of people fleeing conflicts in Syria and around the Middle East and Africa arriving in Greece, Hungary, Germany and other countries each month.
During his presidency, President Obama placed a limit of 110,000 refugees to enter the US per year. A little more than 18,000 of these were Syrian refugees, including one family here in Salisbury. The Trump administration has since placed a limit of 45,000 refugees to be admitted to the US. President Trump’s cap is the lowest any White House has sought since 1980, the year legislation was enacted giving the president a role in determining a cap on refugees. Until now, the ceiling has never slipped lower than 67,000, the number Ronald Reagan set in 1986.
Questions for discussion:
How does Daniel Victor’s article compare responses to Jewish refugees in the 1930s with responses to Syrian refugees today? What are some of the key similarities and differences? How do ideas about race and religion shape attitudes to refugees in each example? What other factors play a role?
How does the film clip from “Defying the Nazis” connect to Mr. Victor’s article? How does it extend your thinking about the lives of refugees and the fears, hopes and challenges they have experienced? How does it add to your understanding of United States’ policies and attitudes toward refugees in the 1930s?
The historian Peter Shulman, interviewed in the article, argued that there are “enough similarities between Jewish refugees in the 1930s and Syrian refugees today to draw a ‘moral connection’ between the two situations.” Do you agree with Mr. Shulman? Why or why not? If yes, how would you describe this “moral connection?”
What dilemmas did Martha and Waitstill Sharp face in their decision to leave home and help refugees in Europe? What risks did they take? What do you think motivated them to make a choice to help refugees when that was so at odds with American public opinion and national policy?
Many who connect the refugee crisis of the 1930s to the plight of Syrian refugees today emphasize the failure of the United States and other countries to help. The Sharps’s story, in contrast, is about a small group of private citizens banding together to aid refugees. Is their history relevant to the current refugee crisis? How might a story of people who chose to help then inform decision-making about the refugee crisis today?
Samantha Power argues in favor of learning the “lessons of history.” In one New York Times article, a Human Rights Watch staff member argued, “We all say we have learned the lessons of history, but to be turning away these desperate people who are fleeing a horrific situation suggests that we haven’t learned the lessons at all.” What are the potential benefits of looking for “lessons” in history? What might be some of the challenges or drawbacks? Why is it so difficult to learn and apply the “lessons of history?”
The two images below were placed side by side atop a newspaper column written by Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times with the caption "Anne Frank, left. At right, Rouwaida Hanoun, a Syrian 5-year-old who was wounded during an airstrike on Aleppo last week." What do you think Kristoff was hoping to communicate by placing these two images side by side? Do you agree with the newspaper's decision to publish them together? Why or why not?